What Should I Do to Improve My Recovery?
A lot of the questions that athletes ask me revolve around their physical training and which exercises will give them the most bang for their buck in the gym. But others are more focused on what happens in the other 23 hours of their day. Most often, people want to know what they can do to recover faster and more completely. That’s what I’ll tackle in this post.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that there’s a single secret key to unlock the door to optimal recovery. Blue light-blocking glasses, supplements, and fitness trackers can all have a place in your strategy, but none of them are going to be a cure-all. Part of the problem with such thinking is that it places too much emphasis on marginal gains and not enough on the big rocks of recovery: sleep, hydration, and recovery. It’s only once you’ve nailed this big three that you should start looking for efficiencies in other areas of your lifestyle. So let’s take a look at each one and some of the easiest ways to use them in enhancing your recovery.
In all of the three main recovery areas, I’d like every TD Athletes Edge client to get a grade of at least a B+ so that we can check them off the list of things that need to be addressed. For sleep, this would mean waking up most days feeling well-rested rather than dragging yourself out of bed or hitting the snooze button multiple times because you feel like you need another hour or two of rest. Earning a passing grade in this category also means being able to get through the day feeling wakeful and energetic, instead of needing a nap or constantly refill your coffee cup.
Failure to get enough high-quality sleep on a regular basis can create a whole host of physical, mental, and emotional problems. According to a group of researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “short-term consequences of sleep disruption include increased stress responsivity, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, emotional distress and mood disorders, and cognitive, memory, and performance deficits.” They continued to state that long-term sleep disruption can increase the risk of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndromes. Insufficient sleep can also undermine training gains and make you more susceptible to injury.
If you’re two for two on the sleep quiz, then you’re probably getting adequate slumber to perform and recover adequately. But if you fall below the B+ cutoff, then sleep school is officially in session! One of the first ways to get better sleep is to set consistent sleep and wake times, even at the weekend. A surefire way to disrupt your circadian rhythm is to shake the snow globe too often by having a different routine every day and night. When I worked with the Lakers, the players who slept the best were those who stayed consistent in their sleep habits. The same goes for you and me.
Another way to bolster your shuteye is to look at the timing and quantity of your caffeine and alcohol content. If you’d consider yourself a heavy drinker or big-time coffee drinker, then you probably already know that these are habits you need to change. The human body hates a delta, so try to cut back gradually over several weeks or months. Everyone metabolizes stimulants and sedatives differently, but as a rule, try to cut off your caffeine consumption mid to late afternoon and limit yourself to two alcoholic beverages maximum so neither disrupt your sleep.
According to research quoted in a CBS report, up to 75 percent of Americans are chronically dehydrated. Per the authors of a review published in Nutrition Reviews, “Under relatively mild levels of dehydration, individuals engaging in rigorous physical activity will experience decrements in performance related to reduced endurance, increased fatigue, altered thermoregulatory capability, reduced motivation, and increased perceived effort.” They went on to state that dehydration also has a wide range of cognitive effects, including lack of focus, brain fog, and emotional volatility. Simply put, if you’re not hydrated, it’s hard to be healthy.
To get to the top of the class in hydration, you need to keep your urine in the clear to light yellow range and avoid feeling excessively thirsty most of the time. If you’re not putting a checkmark next to both, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make some significant progress in your hydration. Start by buying a big water bottle (24 to 32 ounces), putting it on your desk, and refilling it three or four times a day. Once the bottle is empty, you could try a behavior stacking approach whereby you use the refill as an opportunity to fit in a 10 or 15-minute movement break as well.
Also, make sure you take the bottle with you to the gym and in your car’s cup holder when you’re running errands or doing school drop-offs and pick-ups. If you’re running, cycling, or doing another activity that makes lugging a big chunky water bottle around difficult, find a more portable hydration solution that will fit well with your activity of choice. If you’re doing something that will lead to a lot of sweat loss – like training outside on a hot day or sitting in a sauna – try adding a pinch of sea salt to your water to make up for the sodium you’ll lose through sweat. If you’re going hard for more than 45 minutes, then you might want to consider a drink that will replenish other electrolytes too.
OK, now let’s move on to the third “big rock” of recovery. To take home a report card that your parents would be proud of, you’ll need to tell me that you rarely experience dips in energy and be able to easily name three fruits and vegetables you ate yesterday (you get extra credit for five or more). The first component of this test indicates whether you’re getting enough calories or not, and suggests if you’re eating sufficient fat and protein while avoiding excess sugar consumption.
While complex carbs (see: oat, whole, and sprouted grains, etc.) have their place in a balanced diet, fat and protein will keep you full, stabilize your blood sugar level, and supply longer-lasting energy. Fruit and vegetables provide gut health-promoting fiber, which can increase satiety. They also cover your bases in terms of vitamins and minerals, reduce chronic inflammation, combat disease, and offer a whole host of other health benefits.
If your nutrition grade is less than a B+ because your energy level crashes multiple times a day or you’re not eating enough produce, start by trying to observe the 80/20 rule: eating whole, unprocessed food 80 percent of the time. Next, try to make sure you’re getting healthy fat, protein, and fruit or vegetables with every meal. Breakfast is often the hardest time to make the latter happen, so start by either adding a couple of handfuls of spinach or kale to a smoothie or putting some dark berries (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc.) in a bowl of oatmeal. You can add in another serving of either if you need a healthy evening snack. Nutritional scientists from Oklahoma State University found that berries increase the amount of disease-fighting antioxidants, decrease bad cholesterol, and safeguard heart health.
A common complaint I get from clients is, “I don’t have time to cook fresh vegetables or pick them out at the store.” If that sounds like you, then make things easier by grabbing frozen veggies instead. Contrary to popular opinion, these aren’t nutritionally inferior to fresh versions and in some cases, actually, retain more nutrients because they’re flash-frozen after picking and don’t degrade during transport like fresh varieties sometimes do. If you have the bandwidth to pick out seasonal items from the produce aisle, try to go with local options when possible, as these will have spent less time in transit and storage than those from further afield.
If you can get your grade up to a B+ or above in each of these three categories, you will be well on your way to improving your recovery. In the coming weeks, we’ll dive deeper into which areas to optimize next as you continue your high-performance journey.
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 Goran Medic, Micheline Wille, and Michiel EH Hemels, “Short- and Long-Term Health Consequences of Sleep Disruption,” Nature and Science of Sleep, May 2017, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5449130/.
 “Chronic Dehydration More Common Than You Think,” CBS Miami, June 2, 2013, available online at https://miami.cbslocal.com/2013/07/02/chronic-dehydration-more-common-than-you-think/.
 Barry M Popkin, Kristen E D'Anci, and Irwin H Rosenberg, “Water, Hydration and Health,” Nutrition Reviews, August 2010, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/.
 Arpita Basu, Michael Rhone, and Timothy J Lyons, “Berries: Emerging Impact on Cardiovascular Health,” Nutrition Reviews, March 2010, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068482/.
Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.